Saturday, October 11, 2008

ASHLAND, Va. | Barnstorming Virginia to fire up Democrats for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid is something Terry McAuliffe says comes naturally to him.

That would be the same Mr. Obama he worked to defeat a few months ago as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The switch also helps Mr. McAuliffe reach voters in the far corners of the state in advance of a possible run for the Virginia governorship in 2009.

Mr. McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman for five years, has acknowledged an interest in the race but said he will not decide until after the Nov. 4 election. The whole issue may be moot should Mr. Obama win because Mr. McAuliffe could be in line for larger assignments in a Democratic administration.

Mr. McAuliffe, 51, took charge of a party that was broke and dispirited after Al Gore’s wrenching loss to President Bush in 2000. He restored the party to fiscal health and helped position it to win House and Senate majorities in 2006.

That earned him the admiration of party activists in every state. But in Virginia, Democrats say, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has earned his stripes to run for governor.

“You don’t join the church today and run for pope tomorrow,” said Pixie Bell, for 40 years a Democratic Party leader in Fairfax County. “He’s just kind of dropped out of the sky.”

An upstate New Yorker by birth, Mr. McAuliffe came to Virginia 17 years ago and lives in McLean.

Mrs. Bell holds up Mark Warner as the model. Mr. Warner, a Democrat, in 2001 broke a brief Republican stranglehold on every statewide elected office when he was elected governor. Before that, he toiled in Virginia politics for years, serving as state party chairman and managing the historic 1989 election of L. Douglas Wilder as the country’s first elected black governor.

“We could have used a great orator like [Mr. McAuliffe] last year when we were struggling to win a majority in the state Senate,” Mrs. Bell said. Democrats last year won a one-seat advantage in the 40-member Senate.

Mr. McAuliffe would be formidable in Virginia should he enter an already contentious two-way Democratic gubernatorial race. His name and face are familiar to Democrats as Mrs. Clinton’s top backer and as the former DNC chairman.

Two state legislators — House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Bath Democrat — have spent months raising cash and elbowing each other for an edge in the race next year.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, was elected in 2005 and his term ends in January 2010. Virginia does not allow its governors to serve consecutive terms.

Mr. McAuliffe is better known than Mr. Moran and Mr. Deeds and could use his national fundraising network to raise several times more money than them combined. He also knows how to rouse crowds of Democrats and progressives.

Last week, Mr. McAuliffe worked himself into a sweat, sleeves rolled up and arms gesturing in time with the rapid pace of his rhetoric, preaching Mr. Obama’s virtues to voters in Republican-dominated Hanover County.

After 90 minutes on the stump, he spent another 20 minutes shaking hands and bantering with more than a dozen party loyalists clustered around him. He dismissed suggestions of an ulterior motive for last week’s seven-city tour or two similar town-hall-style events Tuesday in southeastern Virginia. “I didn’t talk about myself once,” Mr. McAuliffe said.

The prospect of Mr. McAuliffe entering the race has sent a shudder through the Deeds and Moran campaigns.

A Deeds campaign staffer videotaped Mr. McAuliffe at some of his Virginia appearances for Mr. Obama.

“We’re going to do our homework and have all our research on him that we need,” said Peter Jackson, Mr. Deeds’ chief political adviser. “But in the end, we can only control what we can control.”

However, Mr. McAuliffe’s high profile could have a downside in a Virginia general election, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Terry McAuliffe has two giant problems,” he said. “He’s well to the left of the Mark Warner model, and he has no discernible connection to Virginia government and politics. That doesn’t necessarily prohibit his election, but it does make him a long shot.”

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